Thursday, August 16, 2012

Not Sorry: The Fucking Heroism of Madonna

There are many people from whom I've taken inspiration of some sort, but there are very few I would call "hero." Madonna is one of those few.


It's not her status as a nearly godlike cultural icon, nor her fashion sense nor her stubborn, monumental success nor her role in defining modern pop music, though I greatly admire all these achievements. Madonna is a hero to me because she is arguably the only major entertainment celebrity (with the exception of Mae West) who has truly and unhesitatingly fought for the right to absolute sexual freedom, without exception, without shame, and without apology, in both her art and her life in general. Madonna has labored to show that it is possible to be both sexual and intelligent; sexual and successful; sexual and honest; sexual and mainstream; sexual and religious; sexual and artistic; sexual and female; sexual and loving; sexual and American; sexual and good; sexual and human. In a culture wherein nearly every societal construct is designed to discourage sexuality, Madonna has had the courage and the understanding to protest and to prove the point in her words and deeds, and in doing so she has had an enormous impact on my own life.

Madonna took her most direct stand in support of sex at a time when sex had become almost terrifying. People were dying all over from AIDS, particularly gay men, who faced a force of nature that seemed more viciously homophobic than any human action has ever been. For Madonna to release "Erotica" and the book Sex in 1992 wasn't just an act of (calculated) provocation - it was a proclamation that we were greater than AIDS, that no sadistic immunodeficiency virus was going to stop us from living - or fucking. In a way she protested the surreptitious use of disease as an excuse to enforce some societal notion of sexual ethics upon a repressed minority group, or on anyone else for that matter.

But it wasn't just confrontational stunts like "Erotica" and Sex. Madonna also spoke for those of us for whom sex is just as important as love, or even more so. With "Justify My Love," she (and co-writers Lenny Kravitz,and Ingrid Chavez) addressed the complicated way in which, for some people, sex - not the candle-lit, vanilla, romantic comedy sex but raunchy, leather-studded, filthy hotel room sex - could still be an expression and representation of deep emotional romantic connection that others express through moonlight dancing, impassioned poetry, or the creation of family. I had an epiphany as to the song's meaning partway into my last relationship, with someone who claimed and seemed to be on the same wavelength and to understand the particular manner in which I wished to love and to live, and it was the first time in my life I understood how to, if you will, express myself, what I wanted and believed and felt about love and about myself. In the end, my partner didn't get it. Ultimately it is no one's fault when two people learn they are ultimately incompatible, and perhaps he recognized that he and I were not aiming at the same target, but I often wonder if he wasn't willing to try to understand what I meant in the first place.

Like a wise advocate, Madonna understands the difference between fighting for the right to sexual freedom and telling people how they ought to feel and act themselves. With "Erotica," Madonna wasn't suggesting that everyone ought to be into bondage, S&M and other kinks, but rather that those who are ought to have as much right to be so as those who aren't have the right to abstain. I have never understood, for instance, how people who disagree with gay marriage for whatever reason feel they have the right to impress their views restrictively upon me, when I would never presume to tell, say, a Mormon that he should not be allowed to raise a Mormon family, much less actively try to prevent him through law or force, even though I personally disagree with many aspects of the Mormon faith. Madonna never chastised Amy Grant for singing about God, or the Jonas Brothers for publicizing their chastity rings, yet people raged in response to her book (some disingenuously disguising their objections as artistic criticism); MTV and MuchMusic banned her music videos for "Erotica" and "Justify My Love," and the Pope even banned her from entering the Vatican (Lebanon did as well).

In response, Madonna with the single "Human Nature," a song that has become one of my most comforting personal anthems. It's the perfect argument-ender, neither defensively vulnerable nor concessional and contrite, and it doesn't attack. Madonna simply states that she has nothing for which to apologize; she of all people knew that it is impossible to create a scandal if the subject in no way feels scandalized, a lesson that has eluded scores of celebrities and politicians who have allowed themselves to be brought down over actions that were not really wrong. "You're the one with the problem," she asserts. "Why don't you just deal with it?"

For me, "Human Nature" has been relevant as a response to a society often critical of the way I choose to live. But recently it has taken on new meaning in light of the way my former partner proceeded to turn a once joyful, ecstatic, loving relationship into a theater of emotional abuse. No one has more power to inflict terrible harm than the one you love most and have become closest to, and it is difficult for even the most grounded person to recover from that kind of trauma, embarrassing as I find it to admit such weakness in myself. But here's where Madonna has proven heroic once again, not only providing me with the right words to say but more broadly laying a path along which I found the reasons and the courage to reject all the poisonous judgments, injustices and belittlement this person lay upon me and got me to believe. Until I manage to come up with my own words, I am glad that Madonna's can suffice for the meantime.
You wouldn't let me say the words I longed to say
You didn't want to see life through my eyes
You tried to shove me back inside your narrow room
And silence me with bitterness and lies


You punished me for telling you my fantasies
I'm breaking all the rules I didn't make
You took my words and made a trap for silly fools
You held me down and tried to make me break
Madonna's 54th birthday today has inspired a lot of reverence, critical discussions, and reminiscence from across the globe. For my part, I'm grateful for the occasion to reflect on this legendary musical icon on a bit more personal a level than usual - I may be a critic and an academic, but I am, as well, only human. One could do a lot worse than having Madonna as a personal hero. And I'm not sorry.


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